New left for old

Mike Macnair reviews Max Elbaum's Revolution in the air: sixties radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che Verso, 2002, pp370, £20

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a mushroom growth of far-left organisations across the capitalist world, mainly coming out of the radicalisation of youth and students. The majority of the older cadre of today's far left come in one way or another from this background.

The formal political ideologies of these groups varied. In the colonial countries they tended to be broadly Maoist - with the exception of Latin America, where versions of Che Guevara's mythology of the Cuban revolution were influential. In the imperialist countries, the outcome depended on the existing strength of the Trotskyists and whether they threw themselves into the 'New Left' and identified with it. Where enough Trotskyists did, as in Britain and France, Maoism was marginal and there were substantial New Left Trotskyist organisations. Where they lacked the forces, as in Germany, or in their majority opposed the New Left, as in the US, New Left Maoism came out on top. In Italy, the native tradition of syndicalist direct-action politics and 'spontaneism' had a particular influence: the growth of the far left was most spectacular, but the organisations it created - Lotta Continua, Avanguardia Operaia - were also most unstable.

One might expect that these divergences would make a profound difference to the political character and culture of the organisations created. Max Elbaum's book is worth reading for comrades who come from New Left Trotskyist backgrounds because it demonstrates that this is untrue: the fundamental political culture of New Left 'Leninist' organisations was common across Trotskyists and Maoists. It is worth reading for comrades who are new to far-left politics, or spent the period in question in the official CP or the Labour Party, in order to understand certain critical aspects of 1970s New Left culture. These aspects have resurfaced as the 'war on terror' has taken several of the middle-aged leaders back to the mindset of their youths: 'anti-imperialism' and creating another 'new left' after the 'old left' failed us. The signs are clearest in the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party.

Revolution in the air is a history of the Maoist-Guevarist organisations which came out of the youth and student radicalisation in the USA in the late 1960s from their origins to their eventual collapse in the 1990s. Elbaum's reasons for writing it are in part to draw lessons for any revival of the left in the USA, and partly to polemicise against the 'good 60s, bad 60s' analysis of Todd Gitlin's Years of hope, days of rage (1987), which argued for a 'good 60s' of activists who were really radical Democrats and a 'bad 60s' of Leninist ultra-lefts and terrorists.

The book is structured in five parts. Part I deals with the 'new communist movement's' antecedents in the process of radicalisation in the late 1960s and the reasons for the unattractiveness of the 'old left' to the newly radicalising forces. The latter are gravely overstated, since it is quite clear that outside the Far East Maoism only achieved the sort of strength it attained in the USA in those countries where the Trotskyists were either very weak to start with or deliberately abstained from involvement in the far left of the student radicalisation (as happened in the USA and a few other countries).

Part II deals with the apogee of the movement in 1968-73, describing the several organisations as they formed and their various attempts to go beyond 'pre-party formations' either to regroupment or to launching themselves as parties. I expected this part to take me into a foreign world, but in reality the political culture described is not that far from the culture of the Trotskyist organisations in the same period: commitment to more or less Stalinist (or at least post-1921) versions of Leninism; vigorous activism; attempts to reach the mass of the class through campaigns and fronts.

Part III deals with the movement's loss of the political initiative and slide into crisis between 1973 and 1981. This was triggered initially by the difficulties of class and race analysis in the Boston bussing crisis of 1974, and was exacerbated by separate 'party turns' by the major organisations, which ended the hope of a broad regroupment. The Communist Party of China-People's Republic of China leadership's open bloc with the USA against the USSR and 'third world' movements influenced by Moscow triggered a divide between those trends in the movement which clung to Beijing and those which shifted towards a more general third-worldism.

Part IV discusses, more briefly, the involvement of Maoist and post-Maoist trends in the Rainbow Coalition and the impact on these trends of the collapse of the USSR (etc). Finally, Part V contains a chapter discussing the ex-Maoists' "adjustment to civilian life", and Elbaum's lessons and conclusions. Elbaum concludes, broadly speaking, that the movement had a foreshortened sense of the imminence of revolutionary crisis which made it ill-fitted for the long haul; that Maoism was massively damaging, particularly in creating a mindset of "theory-as-orthodoxy" and producing sectarianism and antidemocratic internal practices; but that, on the other hand, internationalism and anti-imperialism, anti-racism and the effort to form an activist cadre remain fundamental to any effective left. At the end of the day a critical conclusion is that "basing an organisation's unity on an ideological system (say, Marxism-Leninism) rather than a political programme (say, socialism) is fraught with danger ... The result is a strong pull not just toward dogmatism, but toward constant suspicion of heresy" (p336).

Considered as a history, I found the book an interesting read, but in some ways disappointing. The problem is that in some ways, because of the range of organisations whose history he is trying to cover, Elbaum paints with a very broad brush, so that it is hard to get a strong sense of the effective relation of forces between the different organisations or of any of their specific ideological dynamics. At the same time, this is so much a participant history as to be almost myopic. World politics are seen through the eyes of the anti-imperialist US left and in particular its Maoist wing. There is little sense of the dynamics of the post-1968 'Leninist' and semi-'Leninist' far left elsewhere (even, for example, of the Guevarist, etc trends in Latin America, which might have been natural allies of the American 'new communist movement').

On the other hand, some of his lessons are very pertinent to the British left. The experience of the Trotskyists in Britain has also been one of early 70s dynamism, later 70s inability to work out a clear path through more complex political problems and repeated sectarian declarations of small groups as 'the party'. Predictions of short-term revolutionary crisis have in the same way prevented clear strategic thought. The Socialist Labour League/Workers Revolutionary Party, International Socialists/SWP and Militant/Socialist Party were all vastly bigger in proportion to the British population, and better implanted in the working class, than any US Maoist group - but on the scale of mass working class politics they remained marginal. Trotskyism in the British groups has functioned just as much as an ideological system, as opposed to a programme, as Maoism did in the US 'new communist movement'.

Elbaum's most fundamental conclusion is that a party, as opposed to a sect, can only be based on a political programme, not a theoretical system or ideology. That is a conclusion which most of the British far left has yet to draw.

Mike Macnair

Note: A shorter version of this review has previously appeared in Revolutionary History.